Sing a Boatload of History with Folk Songs

When singing folk songs in class, “the songs themselves become our teaching assistants, or more properly stated, we become their assistants when we share the wisdom of the songs and their traditions with children.” So says Peter Yarrow, founder of Operation Respect and member of Peter, Paul & Mary.

When his children began preschool, Yarrow asked their teachers if he could spend time in their classes each week sharing his music. The son of a teacher, “it was my time to inspire, engage, and empower students.” That started a singing journey through history, tradition, and personal growth.

Folk Songs

He began by singing a folk song to the class, then taught them a repeating part of the song, like a chorus or a call-and-response. “Then I would tell them the history of the song, where it came from, and how it might have mirrored the events of its time,” he says.

The history they shared covered lots of ground:

  • Working on “The Erie Canal,” a mule driver and the mule that was his trusted pal;
  • Working on the railroad and tall tales about the competition between John Henry and the steam engine;
  • The wild West through ballads like “Frankie and Johnny” that talked of the power of love and revenge;
  • The lives of Negro slaves and their veiled humor in songs like “Blue Tail Fly”;
  • The Underground Railroad and hidden instructions about how to get to freedom in “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.”

After learning a song’s history, Yarrow and the students hypothesized about its inner meaning or its place in the lives of the people who once sang it, and discussed how the class felt when they sang it. Following the teaching technique his mother used years before, he asked,

  • How do you feel when you sing “Easy Rider” or another blues song?
  • What was the writer feeling when he or she wrote the song?
  • Does the sad message of the song make you feel sad, too?
  • Does feeling that way feel good, or bad, or both—or neither?

Yarrow discovered that his favorite songs elicited passions and feelings in the children and a desire to find out more about the history and mysteries of more folk songs. Yarrow says, “I had already come to the conclusion that history itself could, in many ways, best be told and taught through the arts: singing and other forms of music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry.”

In addition, as Yarrow and the children talked, sang, listened, and shared their own stories, they gained a new perspective. “We all learned to become more humble about ourselves, more in awe of the long ride of life and the amazing sweep of history.”

Have you tried folk songs in your classes? Share your experiences. Get free downloads of Peter Yarrow’s favorite folk songs. —Adapted from Peter Yarrow’s At Large column in the October 2008 issue of Teaching MusicRead more about Peter Yarrow, folk music, and the 1963 March on Washington. —Linda Brown, December 2, 2009, © National Association for Music Education (